Saturday, 31 March 2018

An Early Spring Fling (Fire Emblem Echoes)

Oh holy goddamn. I haven't updated this thing in almost a quarter of a year. Oops. In my defense, a lot happened in January and February. No real creative drive, y'know? Well, those particular hardships and things are in the past now. Time to move forward and talk about some stuff that's on my mind. I impluse bought a video game and the things it's done to me over the past five hours of play have given me feelings. Enough feelings to talk about it... by preluding with talk about other games. Yes, it's a good old-fashioned waffle to welcome in 2018 on my blog. In late March. Shush, I know it's been a while. Anyway, today we're going to talk about Fire Emblem... and how I'm pretty sure I'm at odds with the mainline approach the majority of these games take, and what that means and all other manner of things I haven't plotted out yet. This is a journey we'll take together, so let's roll back to the past.

2006. Wow, we went back a ways. Fire Emblem was kind of sort of around over here now, and the GBA games were out and I played... some of them on my old original model GBA. The one with no backlight. I even remember whipping that thing out at the food court in the Avalon Mall on a Sunday evening after visiting the weekly flea market, but that's a nostalgic memory and has little to do with Fire Emblem itself. So, there are two Fire Emblem games I have access to and I know little about the series beyond the broad strokes. Tactical RPGs with set characters and levelling up and all that, with a tough edge due to their rule on death. If a character dies, they're done for good. That's it. They're gone. Now, hardcore players of these games probably enjoy rolling with the punches and penalties for their poor tactical decisions or roll of the dice, which makes things sort of feel like a tabletop game in a sense. In practice for me, this means just resetting if someone dies and trying the battle again. Maybe that's the incorrect way to play Fire Emblem, but history ended up catering to that approach in a sense... more on that in a moment. For the immediate time being, we'll focus just a bit on the Fire Emblem game I actually did more of during this time period. Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a nice little game that I revisited some of on the Wii U Virtual Console (yes I DO still have my Wii U plugged in, because the Switch has no Youtube app yet and I need videos to fall asleep to by night) that added in one wild trick: the ability to grind. Yeah, none of the other seven games before this let you do that: limited number of enemies on each map, limited use of weapons before they broke, play just right and make people strong and don't get them killed with bad decisions. Now, after a certain point (which I didn't reach in my replay, admittedly, so this is going to be by memory) you could just wander into a haunted tower and fight against zombies whenever you wanted to level up... and buy expendable equipment to do it with. It was an edge against the hard stuff in the game, and while a lot of people ended up dismissing this as making things too easy, I liked having that edge. I never beat Sacred Stones, but I did get rather far. Keep that in mind as we leap forward again...

Basically the present now. Four months ago. December 2017. I bought a Switch! One of the games I got with it was Fire Emblem Warriors! I needed a good solid action game I could sink my time into that also wasn't a Wii U port I'd played before, and this fit the bill well enough. Given that the mists of time had obscured how I felt about Sacred Stones, and my attempt to play Fire Emblem Awakening (of which we'll have more about in a moment)... this ended up being the Fire Emblem I really bonded with. Yes. The musou-style action game one is the one I fell in love with. Why? Well, the obvious answer is that it's easier to play and more fast-paced. Instead of the whole tactical element, I could just run around and kill hundreds of dudes with swords and magic. Funny enough, the tactical element did come in to why I loved this game... when compared to another musou-style game I played around the same time. One Piece Pirate Warriors 3 was a game I'd done a few months earlier on my Vita, and it was my first real foray into musou. This grabbed me more, and the tactical element is why. The One Piece game was fairly standard and just let me punch dudes from the franchise in the face. Servicable fun in light bursts... but Fire Emblem Warriors was adapted from a game series rather than a Japanese cartoon. As such, it could add in elements from the series. Weapon triangles, supports, and even a bit of a tactical element in directing the AI members of your team on where to go and what to defend. It was almost like a big action game based on Fire Emblem. Actually that's exactly what it was. I gave it a nice nod on my GOTY list for 2017 a while back, and since then the DLC's come out for it and I've played even more of a metric shitton of it. The final DLC pack just dropped this week, but I haven't really been poking at it. The reason for that, as well as the reason for this post, is the last Fire Emblem game I want to talk about. Let's get into that, then!

Fire Emblem Echoes is a game I bought on sheer impulse about a week and a half ago when there was nothing else really in the store that I wanted in terms of games. If I have this right, it's the third mainline Fire Emblem game since the series got a shot in the arm with its first 3DS arrival, Fire Emblem Awakening. Awakening's a game that didn't really grab me when I tried to play it, which is a shame since I beat TWO hard games to get it. I'm not sure why it didn't grab me. My best guess is it took just a little too long to get going, and instead did the usual Fire Emblem thing of having me fight a bunch of random-ass bandits rather than giving me plot missions. We'll chalk that up as a personal failing, but let's move on to talk about Fire Emblem Echoes... itself actually a remake of the second Fire Emblem game ever made, Fire Emblem Gaiden. Gaiden, in the vein of other Nintendo game sequels from 25-odd years ago like our vegetable Mario 2, Zelda 2, and Castlevania 2, is somewhat of a departure from the mechanics and structure of Fire Emblem. I haven't seen much of Gaiden, but I feel confident in saying that Echoes manages to be even more of a departure from the mechanics and structure of Fire Emblem in a lot of places. This both pleases and upsets me. It pleases me because this impulse buy has quite a few really neat things that I've never seen before in a Fire Emblem game: things that make me excited to play it. It upsets me because this beauty is fleeting, just like those other "departure" games I listed. I grew up with those games, and I love them... but history (and video gamer culture, as it turns out) deemed them to be aberrations never to be repeated. Fire Emblem ended up the same way, going back to its core style for multiple games after Gaiden... but the mere existence of this remake must prove something, huh?  History could prove me wrong, and the new widespread appeal of Fire Emblem could lead to these mechanics showing up again in the next game... but for now, let me lay out some of the cool things this game has done to wow me and keep me invested.

The biggest, I think, is the world map. I know Sacred Stones and Awakening had similar things, but these just let you waltz to the different chapters and side chapters occasionally. Echoes has a world map swarming with foes to encounter. You have more battles, but they end up being shorter now. I like this approach, especially for a handheld game. You can get in and have a quick battle, level up a bit, feel some progress, and move on to another one. It's the same reason I love Fire Emblem Warriors: you can just get in there and have a quick bit of fun to kill time. Bigger battles akin to the chapters of earlier Fire Emblem games exist, but because of how the game throws the small frys at you first to get there, these feel more like boss battles than just chapters. Stuff happens, and as a result I get this feeling that the battle's a real event in the story of my brave rebel forces fighting to take back the kingdom or fortress or what have you. Once you hit Chapter 3 (which is where I'm at now) the story has a dual split and you can control both protagonists on each side of the world, doing their own thing and getting into their own scrapes as they travel on their respective quests. Then we have the exploration. There's towns you can explore, visual novel-style, and pick up items for your adventure and talk to people and all that sort of thing... but then there's dungeons. Actual honest to god 3D dungeons. You run about in third person, whacking things with your sword to get items and cash, and then there's monsters! And you can get into more short tactical skirmishes with them, but this time you have fatigue to worry about so you have to manage your stamina and whatnot! This is really interesting stuff, and the dungeons stay full of monsters so you can use them to grind a la Sacred Stones if you want.

There are a lot more little things and odd additions. Statues of the goddess Mila which let you class change whenever you like now... and the game giving you a bunch of blank slate villagers whom you could class change however you liked. I quite enjoyed that freedom, but I've not seen much more of that as I've gone through. Speaking of Mila, another wild thing is Mila's Turnwheel, which gives you a limited amount of actual rewinds on your moves in case you don't like the outcome of an attack or made a mistake. This has been helpful to me, in addition to letting me play on the easier difficulty where characters aren't dead forever if they lose all their health. I cite my numerous hard game clears as reference for me earning this reprieve. Even the way you attack has changed: now your attacks cost a small amount of HP, and stronger attacks cost you more HP. Everything about this whole thing is different, and it's grabbed me. This little impulse buy has me hooked, and I'm slowly poking my way through Chapter 3 and finding more cute mechanics and whatnot. It was well worth the money I paid, but it may turn out to be some sort of summer fling. Revisiting Sacred Stones didn't quite grab me in the same fashion as Echoes has. Mainline Fire Emblem hasn't quite caught my eye yet, it seems. Perhaps I could give Awakening another shot, but we'll see. For now, I have Echoes to enjoy... as frustrating as that singular thing of beauty might be. With games like Zelda 2 or Castlevania 2, there's some leeway in the genre of the exploratory platformer being a thing that exists. If I want to revisit that sort of feeling, I can just fire up one of the numerous recent homages to that style. If I want a game like Fire Emblem Echoes, I have no idea where to look other than Echoes itself. It's a beautiful innovation that has captivated me, but in the end I could just be chasing dreams that will never be repeated. That's awfully poetic in a way, and my frustration with the lack of other ways to get this content only makes Echoes more special to me for it. I'll never play a game quite like Fire Emblem Echoes again, and part of me is okay with that. It means Echoes can sit in my mind, its own unique special little thing. I've said before that I'll always remember when my favorite game ever was this or that, even as new experiences come along... but I'll never forget when Echoes was my favorite game to play, because I don't see anything replicating it any time soon. A bittersweet way to end, but no other ending will do.

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